tv Roger Shimomura Oral History Interview CSPAN February 22, 2017 7:19am-8:16am EST
up to 33 overall. with big gains in public persuasion and relations with congress. how did our historians rate your favorite president you can find all this and more on our website at c-span.org. roger shimamura and his family were detained in idaho. later in life, he became an artist whose work focuses on issues such as ethnicity, race, and the japanese american experience throughout the 20th century. an excerpt of modern history. the japanese american legacy project, this is an hour. >> thanks again for joining us, and participating in this
interview. i wanted to start at the beginning. starting with your name what was your name at birth? >> it was roger -- >> when and where were you born? >> i was born june 26th, 1939 in the house that we were residing in 946 24th avenue south. which was five blocks south of jackson. she had actually retired i believe the year before and came out of retirement to deliver me in june. and i think president at my birth was my uncle rick. who is my mom's brother.
the japanese felt it was better to be born at the beginning of a day than the end of the day. my grandmother was encouraging my mother not to deliver until after midnight. uncle rick heard my mom yelling and screaming in pain holding me in because it was very close to midnight. and then finally right after midnight i was born i incorporated that into one of the performances i did. >> that is quite a beginning story. >> my dad was the one that was principally responsible for my first name roger. my dad was conversant in german and.
my grandmother's the one that selected my middle name. >> can you tell me about your father, his name. and a little more about your grandparents. >> my father's name was eddie. >> he was born here in seattle. and to my grandma and grandfather obviously, that had come to this country in -- my grandfather came in 1906, my grandmother came in 1912. my father was born, he was the first to be born in the family, and then my uncle mitch was
third to be born in the family. >> i think backtracking a little bit. my grandmother had such a flourishing midwife business in seattle. in the japanese american mid wives association, i have been told she's the most active of all of them. at least in all of the pictures i've seen in that organization. in any case, her her business was thriving to the extent that after my father was born, she became pregnant with her daughter fume she realized she was too busy to raise fume. she took my dad and took fume and went to japan to visit her
mother, and told her mother she needed help because of her thriving business and needed her to raise either my son or fume who was to be born. she was carrying fume. apparently she -- my grandmother's mother opted for fume. because my father was about 3 years old at the time. and she said was too gasagas as she put it. my grandmother stayed there long enough to give birth to fume, and left fume and took my dad back to the states. when i took my aunt fume's oral history, she told me this and she actually stayed with my grandmother's mother for three
years in japan, that's where she learned to speak japanese so well. and then she was sent back after she turned three with a reverend yamaka, i believe his name was. she was sent back with the minister of the methodist church and rejoined my grandmother. >> that is interesting. that leads me to ask a little more about your grandmother and grandfather. and their lives in japan. as far as you know well, my grandmother was born in 1888 and she went to nurses training school. and graduated in 1903. immediately following that she was drafted into the japanese
imperial navy as a red cross nurse. she was sent on assignment to the japan russian war. which was sort of at its peek, and was sent to the famous battle of port arthur. she was on a red cross ship. they were servicing those men that were being injured in the battle of the baltic sea. my grandmother wrote a story of that that's been published. the story was about how they were expected to lose that battle against the russian fleet. and she writes about how she was anticipating the suicide pills were going to be passed out to
all of the nurses. and so they all cloned their rooms in preparation to die. to save some honor and defeat. she talked about how she saw the bodies of soldiers washing in from the baltic sea. and how they would count how many were russians and how many were japanese. then as it turns out, the japanese fleet defeated the russian fleet and victory was theirs. she described how they stood and screamed their bonsais and so on. shortly after that, she was discharged from the red cross and went to work in a silk factory in a prefecture. she was the main supervising nurse.
and one of the employees at that silk factory was my grandfather's brother. and i believe his name was sabe. my grandfather had already immigrated to the united states. he went to the united states six years before. his intention following his graduation from business college in japan was to come to america and make a lot of money. and to bring that money back to japan and retire as a wealthy person at a young age. he was going to do that in san francisco. he got on a ship for san francisco and the story is, a day outside of san francisco is when the great earthquake hit in 1906. the people on the boat had to chose another port.
and at that time, the next closest major port was seattle. the boat swung northward and several days later they landed in seattle. he found out that life was not as easy as he expected it to be. he ended up getting jobs as a cook or a janitor. and ended up traveling all around the pacific northwest looking for work. and even for a period of time going up into canada and living and working up there. he talked about how he would leave the restaurant late in the evening. leave the kitchen, there would be a couple white men out there waiting for him. and would stone him. and so he got injured several times, and so they made special provisions for him to leave out
the back alley. and so eventually that problem subsided when they -- people that were doing that, assumed he was no longer working there. >> anyway. his brother sabe, was working in a silk factory where my grandmother was working. and he decided that a good marriage should be proposed between my grandmother and his brother. and so he proposed this to both families. and the families upon doing their investigation of each member decided that it would be an appropriate match. photographs were exchanged between my grandmother and grandfather, they have both proved and it was at that point that my grandmother got on a train to say good-bye to all of her friends that lived in the
tokyo area where she lived. and she kept a notebook that said what she was exchanging as gifts with all these people, and she was telling them all that she would be back probably within 10 years, hopefully a wealthy woman. and -- but those notes that she started then constituted the beginnings of her diary. that was to be maintained for the next 56 years of her life in this country so the diary continued where she wrote for -- wrote every day about her 13-day trip across the ocean. she wrote in great detail about the trip on the boat. and how everyone got seasick but her, and she talked about how
the quality of the food and so on and so forth. she came with my grandfather's brother. and then i believe on the 13th day as they were landing in seattle there were 60 other brides on this boat. they described to the front of the boat and they had the photograph with their future husbands, and, of course, they had never met. and how, they were pointing to each other, trying to identify their husbands. the husbands had the photographs of the wives, they were doing the same thing from down below. and then interestingly enough for the next two weeks in her diaries, she never mentioned my grandfather again. but she wrote profusely about seattle and what it felt like to be there and what an interesting place it was and so on. and the stories, the rumors of
the family were that she felt somewhat disappointed and felt that sabe had somewhat misrepresented his brother. and if i -- my memory serves me correctly, she did admit that she was somewhat disappointed. but also said very quickly, that within a short time period she changed her opinion of him and he turned out to be the most wonderful person she could have imagined. my grandfather was in complete reverence of my grandmother. if there ever was a matriarchal family at that level. it was their family. because i had never heard him say anything disparaging about her, he became almost like her serve an the in many ways which
was rather unusual. anyway, so my grandmother shortly after arriving in this country applied for her midwife license and began the practice of delivering babies and from 1912 or 1913 when she began all the way to 1938 i believe, she either delivered or assisted in the delivery of over 1,000 babies. >> what about your mother's side of the family? >> i know a little bit. my mother's cousin -- my mother was a tanagi and came from a large family of nine siblings. very interesting story on that side, in that my grandmother her name was miki.
but she and her husband were both born in japan and married in japan, and they had four children. and left the four children with her parents and was never joined with them again and never went back to america until 50 years later when three of the four siblings had passed away from old age, the surviving one came to this country with her daughter and met her other five children that were born in this country. met them for the first time, and met her mother for the first time in 50 years. that was an amazing story, which i understand wasn't that
uncommon japanese people had slightly different feelings about having their parents raise babies. apparently this was -- at least at the time of immigration this was not so common. obviously it happened on my father's side as well my grandmother left her newborn daughter to be raised by her mother for three years. >> another interesting fact was that my grandfather was also in the japan/russian war, and was an officer in the japan imperial navy, i believe it was. they were both on both sides involved in that war. anyway my mother had a total of nine siblings in that family. and to this. >> she was one of the five here
in the u.s.? >> right. >> she had -- was it three brothers here in the u.s. and -- >> yeah, she had -- actually there were not four in japan, there were three, and six here it was rick, roy and george. and they were all commercial artists and probably had the most to do with the fact that i became interested in art. they were my role models. then there was an older brother johnny, and then there was my mom and she had one sister. you know, there was another one too the youngest one that was called nobu. she was always discussed among other people, he was this
incredible athlete and he was also a singer and he had this incredible voice. he also passed away in his 20s of cancer. i remember it was this great tragedy. everybody talked about nobu. anyway so 50 years later, chio, i believe was the sister's name that came to america with her daughter. she has since passed away. yoko still survives and she has a daughter. those are my only real relatives that are known to me. >> excuse me, what was your mother's first name? >> ia. >> how did your parents meet and happen -- come to be marriedp. >> i asked my uncle rick that question.
all he said was, they grew up on this farm. that's where the university village is right now. >> here in seattle? >> right. >> rick said all of a sudden my dad started hanging around -- he made it sound like he just suddenly appeared and started dating my mom. my dad because he was a college graduate held a certain stature in the community. he went through at a time it was difficult to graduate. my dad wanted to become a doctor, he was in premed and the depression hit. my grandparents wanted him to graduate very badly. and purchase a grocery store. in the latona district. which is wallingford. and they ran this grocery store
in an attempt to make enough money to keep him in college. my dad felt the quickest way out was to become a pharmacist. so that's what he did. he had always hoped one day i would fulfill his destiny and become that doctor my dad who was a little older than most of the people of that time. because my grandparents had come over a little early in terms of that beginning flux of japanese americans, my dad was actually -- had a job as a pharmacist for seven years when the war broke out. and i think the average nisa was either in high school or college. which made him too old to -- he volunteered for the 442nd, but he was considered too old. he was a little out of step.
>> really compared to many of his peers, he was a little older, he had graduated from college. he was a professional man. >> he started hanging out with my mom and my mom went to roosevelt high school. and it was shortly after graduating from roosevelt high school, i believe, she was working at the farm that my dad -- i think they met at some kind of party or something. and struck up a conversation, and then started hanging out at the farm as my uncle rick said. before you knew it, they were dating steadily and they were married and she was quite young, i believe when they got married. and then i was born within a year of their marriage.
>> and that was 1939? >> right. >> so now that time do you know whether in your household, was it your parents and you and -- did your grandparents or any other relatives live with you at that time? >> at some point there my grandmother and grandfather were -- on my father's side, were living with us. i was born in at 24th avenue south. i believe prior to that time, my grandparents were living with my parents. and then i was born, and i believe they continued to live with us until the war and then at that point when we got back from camp, they lived across the street from us, my dad bought
another house for them. >> speaking of the whole world war ii and your family's removal from seattle along with everyone else some of your work really has depicted some of your earliest childhood memories maybe now would be a time for you to recall those earliest memories, some of them you have depicted in your artwork, other memories you may not have. >> yeah, i was two years old at the time when the war broke out. and of course i don't remember pearl harbor day, but i asked my father about it, and he said that they were on -- in a car driving around. i think they went to church, i believe it was on sunday. it was customary for them to go
on a drive before they went home after church and i believe he said he was up around ballard or crossing the balance order bridge or something like that when the radio announced that war had broken out between the two countries. and he said he immediately made a u-turn to go back home and was extremely frightened and realized the implications that this might have upon their family and their community. and so my grandmother, of course said in her diary entry today when i got back from church. so i guess it was sunday i heard the news that japanese airplanes had bombed hawaii, i was
surprised beyond belief. at 6:00 a.m. this morning japan declared war on america. our future has become gloomy. my grandmother was a christian in japan. when she came to this country was very active in the japanese methodist church is known at the blight memorial methodist church. i have been told by several people, she was the first japanese american woman to get a washington state driver's license. and of course she needed this for her midwife business i don't know, i haven't checked on that, but i've heard that from several people. >> yes, she was know to have
delivered babies all around the area, not just in seattle. >> right. >> so anyway when the war broke out and we were sent to the assembly center, i believe the very first memory i have of life was my third birthday in puyallup. i believe i went there in april. i remember very clearly walking in and out of our quarters, telling people that i was three. and everybody that i saw, i remember telling people i was three. that's my first recollection i think of life, my third birthday, and then i also remember -- this was in puyallup as well, contracting the measles. and being quarantined. my mother and i were both quarantined.
i remember that because our food was passed through a slot in the door three times a day. even more memorable than that was a mouse that was in our room that would come out every night. we could hear it scurrying around. i thought it was a wonderful adventure, my mother was abh abhorred. and then one night there was no mouse, and i mentioned that to my mother, and she said that, it's because she killed it. and i always remember going over to the garbage can, seeing this dead mouse there, which was probably one of the first encounters i had with the notion of death. my uncle that was married to my aunt fume who, of course, was also in camp, kept a diary for
the two years they were in camp. the difference between his diary and my grandmother's diary, was that my grandmother's diary was probably never meant to be interpreted. whereas my uncle wrote a diary in great anger, and i think fully intenned itted to have the diaries translated -- not translated, published some day. he had a background in journalism, and actually was working for the newspaper in twin falls when the war broke out. i believe he voluntarily went into camp because twin falls was outside of the security zone. after the war, he and fume left camp and moved to twin falls and
stayed there until his death. those were my main memories of puyallup, i don't remember the train ride at all to camp. but i did read all of my grandmother's diaries about that train ride to the camps. where the shades were all pulled down, and my grandmother talked about carrying me, and i was very restless and would periodically cry. she wrote about what a disappointment it was to stop and look at this camp which i believe was the fourth largest city in idaho at the time. >> i think it was somewhere
around 10,000 people or so. >> was your grandmother and grandfather on your father's side living in the same room with you and your -- >> no, because my dad was a pharmacist, they put him to work in the hospital and so all of the people that worked in the hospital were all put in a certain area of camp, close to the hospital is. my grandmother was in a completely different zone, she talks about how at least, in the early goings she had to apply for a permit to travel from one part of the camp to the other every time she wanted to see me, she had to apply for permission to make that move. during camp my sister carolyn
was born and i remember her being born, but i remember nothing about it, i remember the fact of her being born but i have no associations with it, what i do have a lot of recollections about was getting into a lot of mischef. and one of the incidents that i recall -- when you remember so few things, but you tell that story again and again, it's something that becomes galvanized and -- i don't believe i've been embellishing all these years, it was with billy ashida. she's someone i ended up going to junior high or high school together i guess. he and i got into my mom's
make-up. we put make-up all over the entire room and mirrors. i remember doing that. and i remember how furious my mother was when she came in there and discovered this mess we had made. of all the things that happened over a two year period, i should remember that more clearly. >> i remember all of the extremes of weather. coming from seattle. i never experienced heat like that, wind like that, and the sandstorm, you know. >> and i never remembered ice like that and the flooding, how everything turned into this quagmire was all new to me and as a 3 and 4-year-old. i remember the mess halls, eating there, i remember the bathro
bathrooms. and a few small episodes here and there. i remember friends coming to visit right after we got there. i remember our neighbors that took care of our house while we were gone coming to visit us. i remember talking through the fence. >> these were caucasian neighbors. >> right? >> from seattle. >> they hadn't yet set up any kind of organized system of how the people would accommodate guests so it was just a dialogue through the fence. which was one of the images that i made later on as one of my first ten memories of life so basically, that's. >> do you remember any kind of -- i understand there was some preschool there of some
so sort. >> there was a whole school system set up through high school. most of my recollection has to do with that photograph that was taken in that nursery school class, i can't recall anything that happened while i was in class. >> and then from what you have said earlier about your father being able to leave camp on his own without the rest of you, and that was about 10 months or so after you all arrived that he was able to go out. >> right, as long as he didn't go to the western sector, and he told me he went up to -- what is
it in rochester new york, mayo clinic, they offered him money that was far below the minimum wage. and he went to various other pharmacies in the upper midwestern area, butlanded in chicago working for sergeant drugs which up until a few years ago, continued to operate on wabash avenue. i used to go to chicago a lot. i would walk by sergeant drugs and had a personalized fond memory of that because of my father it was owned by a german american family and they took him in and provided him with a place to live while he worked at the drugstore. for quite a period of time, my father looked for a place that was big enough for my mother and
my sister and i to come and join him but it took him a year until he finally found that place in south chicago. fairly close to lake michigan, i remember walking there from the apartment on sundays. and sort of playing next to the water, we lived in this very monthsest apartment and i recalled it was -- my mother in particular, was very nervous about me growing up in that apartment because it was a very rough neighborhood and the kids were very rough, i was kindergarten age. i remember one of the favorite games we had was bomb the jap. and we had this.
one of the kids had this dummy bomb that was all metal. we would go up our apartments and throw it out of the window, when all the kids would be playing in this open area on the ground level. and all of our apartments looked into that courtyard. we would throw the bomb out and try to hit the kid that was down there which could have been devastating. and we would scream bomb the jap. you had enough warning to get out of the way before the bomb actually hit. but it was there that i probably learned my first dirty words and flipped off my mother. one day, went up to -- she asked me to do something, and i gave her the middle finger, i remember she whacked me over the head. i had no idea what it meant
except that's what you did when someone said something to you. i think that also smoke to the quality of the neighborhood or the type of neighborhood that it was. >> i've heard from other folks that quite a few japanese american families moved to chicago around that time. your father had left camp in 43 and you joined him in 1944. were there other japanese american families living in your complex? >> i don't specifically remember any, but looking at our family photo albums there were. not only that, the military personnel like my uncle mitch, because he wasbling wall was sent as an interpreter to the pacific area. and he came back several times
for a visit to visit us in chicago. there are a lot of photographs, it was at the time that he and my aunt were initially dating. there were a lot of photographs of couples, japanese american couples visiting us in chicago. my guess is they were probably being released at that point. >> what about your playmates in that housing complex, racially, ethnically, what kind of make-up. >> it was all white, as i recall. and my baby-sitter her name was betty bourne, caucasian family that lived on the same floor just across the hallway.
i always remember when my sister carolyn attracted influenza, meningitis and i remember my parents taking her to the hospital in the middle of the night. waking me up, and betty bourne came over to watch me. they took my sister away, and that was the last time i saw her, she died i believe it was that evening. and the next day they asked me if i wanted to see her, they took me to the funeral home and i saw her for the last time in her -- it was like a bassen et because she was under 2 years old, and my father lifted me up, and i remember thinking that she didn't look real, she looked like she had powder all over her or something, that was my first real encounter with human death.
so those -- i remember christmas in chicago. and, of course, because my father took a lot of photographs sometimes i get what i actually recall and what i think i recall confused. >> i wanted to return back to that bomb the jap play you had with kids there. did you ever have any sense that you personally were being targeted because you were a japanese american? >> no, at that point i never did. the fact is, when we got out of camp and went back to seattle one of our favorite games to play was kill the jap. and right next to our back porch there was a play area my dad had a lot of scrap lumber, we would
rearrange that scrap lumber to create these shelters that we treated as shelters that would protect us from bombs that the japs dropped on us. i always remember taking turns with john who was the painter who lived right across the street from us. they were my three closest friends. john was the same age as i was, the two of us were probably closer than vincent the younger one or paul the older one. although paul sang at my wife and i wedding. john and i used to always kill the jap together along with another family. that lives up the street, there were two boys, bob and bobby and richard, bobby was my age.
and so bobby and richard and john and i used to always play kill the jap. we would always argue about who the jap was going to be we all wanted to be john wayne because john wayne was the biggest jap killer, i have a photograph of that of all of us playing war and having helmets and guns and all that kind of stuff, and taking turns being the jap. >> at that young age, did you have that sense that or had you had the experience at all of being called jap by someone else. not your playmates or friends, but someone who's not japanese american actually calling you jap or your folks being --
>> well, the grade school, junior high and high school i went to was just riddled with that. most of it was in pretty good humor. it was a completely different situation than today. i truly grew up in a multicultural neighborhood as well as schools. but it was -- the rules were completely different back then we never -- never used the n word in talking to black people. we would use other words like jigs. or we used to call them night trains and things like that. all you have to do is look at my yearbook, you can see all these references in there, there were all these pecking orders between
chinese, japanese and filipinos, that was sort of understood most of the chinese were fobs. and we let them know that, and we looked down on fob's, fresh off the boats, and -- put then there were a few abcs, american born chinese that were okay, because they were closer to us but there was a lot of japanese americans that were third generation, which put us pretty deep into the american culture compared to our abc friends and certainly fobs. it's ironic that the japanese americans would be singled out who were more deeply invested in this country than any other ethnic asian mine order so there is one incident i recall when we went back to -- came back to
seattle that happened in oregon. >> before we get there, i'm going to take you back to chicago a little bit and then maybe we can work our way up to cannon beach. since you had been, some of your earliest memories had been in camp where almost everyone around was japanese american and then you moved to chicago where it sounds like in your immediate living area, where your apartment was and playmates were all white. did you -- did you recall not e noticing that? do you think you were aware at that time? >> i don't recall being aware of it. that's not to say i wasn't because i've learned over the years that there were a lot of things that i was taught just to repress, if it was uncomfortable
or if it felt awkward. there were ways that japanese americans had ways of dealing with those kinds of things and repressing them. or pretending that they didn't exist. just like the way our parents, with the whole camp experience, they just decided to erase it from their memory bank of course i think that created a lot of problems as well nonetheless, it was a survival technique and it worked. and so i'm not going to say we got to chicago that i was immune from realizing, you know, those differences, because i very well could have and just learned as a youngster how not to pay attention to that because of the influence my parents had on me on a daily basis, don't think before that, don't talk about
that you shouldn't notice things like that, it's bad for you, whatever why wouldn't it be, if i said gee, there are no japanese kids around here, i could hear them saying, that doesn't matter, don't ever say that again, that doesn't matter. but as i say, i don't remember that specifically. >> it's just like people ask me about the camp experience how did i feel about that. as a 2 and 3-year-old, you don't think about that, the things you think about are far more immediate than that you know, the fact that all my friends were around me from all of a sudden whatever change this was was for the better. i can only see these people on certain occasions, not on a daily basis. >> before you left chicago, though, your grandparents came and joined you, right?
>> after three years they came out of camp and came to chicago. i don't remember that, but i do remember all of us getting on a train and going back to seattle. i remember we stopped at minneapolis to get my aunt hiroko. she was going to accompany us back to seattle on this train ride. the reason i remember her, is because i threw up on her. she was sitting across from me. i remember i was train sick so sick i couldn't tell anybody i was sick, because i was afraid i'd throw up as soon as i opened my mouth. we're riding awrong, and i couldn't contain it any longer, and i threw up all over her map. >> if a 6-year-old gets humiliated. i remember a new years ago i asked my aunt if she remembered that. she said, of course, i
remembered that. >> oh, dear. that would be an indelible memory. >> yes. >> that would have been 1945 that you returned to seattle? or possibly early 46? >> it was about that time that the cannon beach story, i don't think my sister was born yet, my second sister. i think my mom was probably carrying her at the time. but we drove down to cannon beach oregon, where my dad had made reservations to spend a week on the beach. i remember sitting in the back of the car and it was a 1946 chevrolet, my dad had bought this brand new car. and i was sitting in the back, and my mom was sitting in the front and my dad got out of the car and went inside the office